One suspects “Time Trial” will play differently for those familiar with David Millar than those who aren’t, a cycling star in England who, like Lance Armstrong, fell from grace after being caught for doping, and sits for a bit of a confessional with director Finlay Pretsell, only it isn’t the words that leave an impression as much as his body language. Millar isn’t interested in rehashing the past, but the intrigue in “Time Trial” is that Pretsell isn’t much exactly, except for the purpose of giving an audience enough idea of how the accumulation of the past weighs on the cyclist as he embarks on one last run at the Tour de France.
Although Millar is frustrated to be confined to his body, considered to be past his prime in the unforgiving sport, “Time Trial” is exhilarating in putting you inside his mind, roiling with self-doubt yet an unshakeable drive to prove to himself that he can still race with the best of them. With the Tour de France being the boyhood dream that he never conquered even at the height of his powers, being unfortunate to overlap in so many ways with the Armstrong era, Millar is eight days removed from serving out his two-year probation from the sport when he gets in the race, mentally setting him far behind anyone on the road even if he starts out at the same place physically. Although the first image in “Time Trial” is from a sit-down interview with Millar, the film quickly moves from objectifying him into slipping into his consciousness, joining him on the grueling bike trail, often hovering around him as he climbs hills, rolls down them with abandon and pedals furiously at times seemingly just to stay in place, with memories of past races flitting through his mind in montage.
Pretsell draws on Millar’s backstory to personalize the film to just the right degree as he’s mentally more burdened than most who take on the Tour de France, yet “Time Trial” is equally invested in portraying the rigorous experience of it as much as it is Millar’s personal experience. Sliding inside the support car that rides alongside Millar to give him water and Clif Bars and venturing outside of it, presumably on motorcycles mounted with cameras and other technical trickery to capture the action, the film really is an tactile simulation of being in a cyclist’s shoes, as conditions such as rain and dirt will occasionally obscure the lens, detracting from a sense of sight but adding immeasurably to a sense of touch. The shrewd editing of Kieran Gosney and Dino Jonsäter, slowing certain scenes down and speeding up others, never feels gimmicky in adding to the full-on immersion of “Time Trial” and in relying mostly on Millar’s voiceover with a subject who is frank about where he is in life and in the race, you realize it is as treacherous to be in his headspace as anything that’s unfolding in front of him on the road, a feeling of danger that keeps an audience on the edge of its seat.
While Millar constantly flirts with falling off himself as he struggles just to stay at the back of the pack, Pretsell balances the demands of telling an individual story with a more universal one, recognizing how the professional becomes so personal, particularly when the end of a career becomes obvious and in Millar’s case, abrupt. Still, “Time Trial” is careful to convey the lure of racing amidst the struggle to stay in it, democratizing the kind of visceral thrills that were once exclusive to cyclists as skilled as Millar.